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Word Court

by Barbara Walraff

Repurposing IN RULES that are to take effect next month, President Bill Clinton has ordered federal agencies and departments to use "plain language," rather than jargon, when writing official documents. Wherever people work with words, sooner or later they find themselves struggling with jargon. It's not all bad. Herewith some letters about jargon.

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At the magazine where I work, I've been frequently hearing the word repurposing -- as in "repurposing information" (taking material that was designed for print media and converting it to a Web-based format). A colleague wants it banned from our magazine; I insist it's used universally and is here to stay. What's your thinking on this neologism?

Emil Vernarec
Nutley, N.J.

I'd never seen the word myself until you wrote, so you can't persuade me it's used universally. However, The Atlantic's new-media people assure me that they're quite familiar with the word. What's more, they say they can't give me any exact synonyms for it--the fundamental test for whether a neologism deserves houseroom or not. The most nearly synonymous word they could think of is recycling, except that recycling carries unfortunate connotations of garbage.
Discuss this feature in the Books, Literature, & Language conference of Post & Riposte.

Related links:

  • The Presidential Memorandum on Plain Language
    Clinton's memorandum to the heads of executive departments and agencies about the importance of using clear, comprehensible language in government communication with the public.

  • Plain Language Action Network
    "A government-wide group working to improve communications from the federal government to the public."

  • Repurposing is jargon, but I don't mean that pejoratively. Within a specialized field, jargon like this serves as shorthand, so that, for example, you and your colleagues don't need to keep saying "converting print material to a World Wide Web format"; repurposing allows for a much more economical phrasing. I'm not eager to see it turn up in nontechnical contexts (say, "Courtney Love, once thought of as a singer, has sought to repurpose herself as an actress and a model"), but I agree with you that the word has its place.

    Problem-solving H elp! I am a harried copy editor currently working on several college-level textbooks in the field of education. I am beset with clunky verb-phrase constructions that the authors insist have become common parlance in their field. The worst of these is problem solve, as in "When you problem solve with parents and colleagues ..." Authors insist that my initial inclination to change the phrase to read "solve problems" skews their meaning.

    What do you think about this usage? Bear in mind that these folks are teaching the people who will be teaching our children.

    Tim Barnes
    Campaign, Ill.

    On the one hand, specialized fields need specialized jargon for their specialized ideas -- as President Clinton recognized in his new rules, which make allowances for "necessary technical terms." On the other, it's not as if the idea of solving problems is particularly specialized.

    Have you tried telling your authors that problem solve (as a unit) isn't in the dictionary? Presumably, your mandate is to ensure that the texts are in standard English, so the dictionary test is important. Then again, I can understand the position that "When you problem solve with parents and colleagues" isn't identical in meaning to "When you solve problems ..." Maybe it should be "When you work with parents and colleagues to solve problems"? This is the level on which to try to engage your authors: what is the best way to change what they've written so as to say what they mean in standard English?

    Mission Statement Last week in a meeting the question came up of whether our mission statement should be revised. It reads as follows: "The mission of the steering committee is to foster employee involvement to achieve continuous improvement through communication, recognition, and commitment of both individual and team efforts." I volunteered right away to revise it, stating that the sentence is too long, has two infinitives, doesn't make sense, and is just not good English. The response from the department heads was that they had all worked long and hard composing it and it should stay as is. Later my department head came to me and said that if I wanted to, I should take a shot at revising it.

    The statement seems to me to be a collection of worthwhile words, randomly thrown together. Is it bad English or just an awkward sentence?

    James A. Smith
    Millsboro, Del.

    No one has told you? Mission statements exist for two reasons only: so that the committee working on one can have a catered lunch brought in, and so that any employee who wants to have a little nap at the office can just get out the mission statement and read it. Never think about this again!

    Have you recently had a language dispute that you would like this column to resolve? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or send E-mail to MsGrammar@TheAtlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court.

    Barbara Walraff is a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthlymagazine.

    Illustrations by Steven Guarnaccia

    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; September 1998; Word Court; Volume 282, No. 3; page 140.

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